I became a young woman in a time of war in a self-destructing Yugoslavia. Recovering from the trauma of war is an ongoing process. Yoga and meditation have played a central role.
Here in Berlin, where I live and teach, there has been an influx of people I don’t know, yet somehow recognise. Their faces are both unknown and familiar.
The tension and the weariness in many of their countenances is obvious to me. They are people like you and me, with dreams, hopes, love and fear, who have fled their countries due to violent conflict. They come from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kurdistan and elsewhere. Their lands have been torn apart by pointless wars. Germany offers a safe haven.
Coming from the former Yugoslavia, I feel what they are going through. The trauma of the Yugoslav Wars (1991–1999) that raged around me during my teenage years is to some extent still with me. It dwells in the tissue and cells of my body, and as memories that can surface suddenly and unwelcomely.
A few years back, for example, I visited the Museum of Modern Art while in New York.
I was especially excited to see “Sweet Violence,” a solo exhibition by Sanja Ivekovic. A fellow Croatian, her art is highly acclaimed outside of Croatia. Her work has been unofficially banned in the major museums and media in Croatia, where engaging and provocative feminist art is in short supply, and anything but appreciated.
I dived into her exhibition, enjoying layers of familiar cultural references. When I reached the last room, a voice I knew well but never expected to hear again, broadcast through a speaker system, announcing a general airstrike over Zagreb. Goosebumps, shortened breath, anxiety, all suddenly kicked in.
I swung around to see a clip of a Mexican soap opera popular in the 1990s playing on a television. As the warning finished, the soap kept rolling, with the words “Zracna opasnost Zagreb” appearing on a banner at the top of the screen — “General Air Threat in Zagreb.”
The voice of the emergency broadcast announcer combined with the sight of that cheesy soap opera took me back — in a flash — to that dark time, completely unprepared and off guard. I didn’t have time to detach myself from the fear, anger and anguish.
What happened next was involuntary — I had a panic attack. Trembling, I tried to calm down, to regain my composure, but I could not. I started to cry, my heart racing, so I sat myself down in the garden. I felt embarrassed to cry in public, but a bigger part felt helpless, scared, angry and appalled, just like I did twenty years ago when it was really happening. It was all still there, under the skin, and I had to let it move through me. Sobbing, I tried to keep my eyes open to help me remember it was over, that I survived, and my family is well.
In the midst of this shock and trauma reactivation, a strong urge appeared to communicate how I felt, and how absurd it was to have to seek cover in an air raid shelter while a Mexican soap opera continues broadcasting on national television. But how could I communicate that? Did Sanja Ivekovic manage to communicate that through her installation? What was being communicated? The triviality of war?
And just like twenty years ago, during the height of the war, I felt there was no one in the “outside” world who could hear and understand that. I put it all in a long SMS text and sent it to my sister and an old friend. I knew they would know exactly how I felt. They’ve been there, too.
That’s why I recognise the asylum seekers who have escaped their lands to find refuge in Germany. Their countries are disintegrating or almost nonexistent, and might become nothing more than a page in a history book, as did the former Yugoslavia. Even if they don’t recognise it, the trauma is there, deep in the body, waiting for a time when it can be welcomed, processed and released. My heart feels for them.
It’s taken me time to come to terms with my own trauma. Perhaps not surprisingly, when I was age 19, I developed a strong interest in questions of life and death. The experience of war tends to do that to you. This led me to Ch’an Buddhism and yoga, which both deal with the deepest questions surrounding human existence.
Through my twenties and early thirties Buddhist yoga and meditation have provided me with an anchor I so desperately needed. Back then I didn’t consider myself traumatized by the war: I didn’t lose my home, I wasn’t raped, no one in my family was killed, which was not the case with people around me. I didn’t have reasons to complain, I thought.
I was determined to enjoy my life no matter what, to live on my own terms. I wasn’t aware that ‘no matter what’ was the baggage from the past and that there is no need to position myself against anything.
In my mid-thirties, I finally recognized that some of the things I was experiencing were due to war trauma, especially after moving to Berlin, the place that carries its own complex trauma. Around that time I became a full-time yoga teacher and started to study bodywork, as well.
Coming to the mat every day, learning to soothe my nervous system, to retrain it, as I have moved and explored form, breath and posture, has been an elixir of life. Meditation, the stillness and the precision of awareness, has helped me to see deeply into patterns of thought, attachment and misconception — and to soften their hold on me.
I am still struggling sometimes with resurfacing of the trauma. But meditation and yoga are helping me open my heart, again and again, to find stability and strength and to live with the ambiguity and complexity of the world without drawing in it.
It takes a long time and a lot of work to heal.
This process is made harder when people fleeing war are discriminated against and tarnished by the violent actions of a tiny few. People fleeing war mostly want stability, somewhere to feel safe, so their nervous system calms and they can begin to participate in life again. Let us offer them that.
This does not necessarily mean that we need to offer them yoga or meditation. We can start with something very simple and very healing — mindful listening.
Five essential guidelines for talking with people who have escaped war
1: Instead of talking about the war in their country, raise something about their country of origin they can be proud of, or something you appreciate yourself — arts, crafts, landscape, music, food — there are so many topics. Don’t know any? Educate yourself!
2: If you would like to ask about the war, first inquire whether they would like to talk about it and then listen with compassion. Let the story unfold at its own pace. Mindful listening without interruption is a wonderful gift.
3: Do not lecture people about the morality of what happened in their country. You read about it in a newspaper, they experienced it in their own skin.
4: Ask them about their situation now, learn about their world in the here and now. What’s happening, what inspires them, what are their goals and dreams?
5: See if you can help them with anything. Fleeing war and moving to a strange new country is demanding — they can do with all the support they can get.